By: Jack Bader
“Your aspirations are your possibilities.”
– Samuel Johnson
Aspirations are a driving force for entrepreneurs and successful businessmen. But if you are severely handicapped, should your aspirations be handicapped as well? When someone asks about my life goals I quickly respond…”to orbit earth” as if it was just another semi-difficult thing to achieve; I firmly believe that I will be able to do this in my lifetime.
Involvement with the X Prize Foundation has given me hope that if I live a normal life expectancy I should be able to achieve this goal. It will happen because the private sector is creating technology to allow “affordable” trips into space and then earth orbit.
But what if I was handicapped? What if I could only blink my eyes, twitch my cheek and was confined to a wheelchair requiring help 24×7 just to stay alive? Should I recalibrate my dreams with the hopes of someday being able to move a finger or say a word? Would it be unrealistic to expect more from life?
I found the answer to that question when I met a man who shares my dream of space flight yet has been physically devastated by ALS disease and is 100% dependent upon the care of others — Professor Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past 40 years.
During one of his many interviews, Professor Hawking mentioned that one of his life goals was to go into space. Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize Foundation that had its birth here in St. Louis (and CEO of Zero Gravity Corporation), heard him and volunteered to fly Professor Hawking aboard a specially equipped Boeing 727 called G-FORCE ONE, aka the “vomit comet.” This zero-g flight, while fun in itself, would be viewed as a crucial step to see if Professor Hawking’s fragile body could withstand the physical challenges of a future space flight.
On April 26 I joined a small group of people at the Kennedy Space Center to accompany Professor Hawking, and his entourage of four doctors, two care givers and a computer specialist on this flight. On the way to the airplane, Hawking sat there silently, emotionless, his computer periodically chirping. All of us were happy for him yet unsure how to relate.
Boarding the plane in our blue jumpsuits I felt like Richard Dreyfus walking onto the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We took our seats and Professor Hawking was rolled in on his wheelchair. We stood and applauded him realizing how much work it took just to get this far.
We took off and headed for 30,000 feet where we would fly a special parabolic maneuver that would provide 25-30 seconds of actual weightlessness. Success for Hawking would be to do just one parabola. Then came the “1 minute warning”…we lay down flat on the padded floor to await the start of the parabola.
And then…we were weightless…we easily pushed up from the floor…each of us experiencing Newton’s Third Law for ourselves. What an astonishing feeling! I looked over and there was Professor Hawking floating in the air, quiet, but with the largest grin that I have ever seen on anyone!
That grin was a permanent fixture for the duration of the flight. Instead of one parabola Professor Hawking actually negotiated eight. On each one he was more adventurous as he was flipped, floated and spun in circles by his medical team while the entire plane watched and cheered.
I was struck not only by his strength and endurance but the surprising amount of personality, something I was not expecting. After the flight, using his computer-activated voice synthesizer Professor Hawking delivered a stirring speech during which he announced his plans to actually go to space on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo.
For me, this flight of this incredible, resourceful, resilient human being proved, once again, that Samuel Johnson was right: “Your aspirations are your possibilities,” that anyone can do what they want if they focus and put their mind to it.